Portraying Mental Illnesses in Writing

Mental illness can be a sensitive subject to approach, but we can’t deny its presence in our world, and we can’t resist examining it in others’. In media, it is common to see characters exhibiting traits that we might assign to certain mental conditions, but we have to be cautious with how we characterize mental conditions in that we do it respectfully and with understanding as to how people in real life deal with these conditions. It’s easy to see the allure of using mental illness to add depth, vulnerability, or even a means to excuse actions in a character, but rarely are these portrayals ever tasteful.

There is a wide range of mental conditions, and often they can be identified alongside other related conditions. Mental illness does not limit anyone to strictly experiencing sadness or anger, and it certainly doesn’t impart some kind of ‘craziness’ on people. Some mental illness reveals itself in the form of quiet anxieties, others in high strung panic, or aggression, mania, depression, and everything in between. In the same vein, people can display mental illness in different ways. Some don’t outwardly display any traits of mental illness at all. The most noteworthy aspect of mental illness isn’t how someone acts – it’s how they think.

In writing a character with mental illness, the writer has to keep in mind that this is a character who doesn’t have a healthy mind. How their mind is unhealthy depends on the nature of their mental condition, and even this doesn’t define the character’s behavior. Once a character’s mental illness is identified, further aspects of it and how it has affected the character should be examined.

When did this mental condition arise? Some are genetic, implying that a character will have had a mental condition since birth. They might not have displayed traits of it since birth, or they might have experienced it in subtle, periodic episodes. It might have even shaped their personality into the character they are now. It might have always been the reason they act a certain way, or the reason behind certain habits. Alternatively, some mental conditions can arise suddenly as a result of trauma or childhood upbringing. If this is the case, what happened to them and how would it impart a mental condition? Is it an appropriate cause for what they are experiencing now? Examine how the interaction between the character and their mental condition has shaped them.

How does the character display traits of their mental condition now? Is it a persistent effect or does it only arise in stressful situations? Does the character outwardly show signs of mental illness or is it mostly their mental processes that are affected? Does their behavior align with the parameters of their mental illness? Also to be considered is how this character copes with their mental illness. How do they collect themselves should an episode occur, or how do would they manage chronic mental illness?

Other characters will view your character in different ways. Does this affect your character in any way? How do other characters view your character based on behavior or what they have been told?

These factors are all vital to building a believable, respectful portrayal of mental illness in a character, but perhaps the single most important part of writing mental illness is research. Even before putting these attributes together, research the mental illness you are writing about. Read everything you can about what parts of a person’s body it affects, if it has physical implications (for example, a deficiency in blood flow or the lack of a certain part of the brain) or special characteristics that help to identify it. Try to find real world examples of this mental condition, and watch or read interviews, documentaries, and scientific papers. Even bad, cliche, or disrespectful portrayals are worthy of examining if only to serve as an example of what to avoid.

When writing a mental condition in action, one can step back and try to think how the character might think. Acknowledge that they might think differently than you do. For example, if you are writing a character prone to panic attacks, imagine how a character experiencing a panic attack might think. Their thought process will not be rational, and they might not understand why their body is reacting a certain way. They might not even be able to produce a coherent thought. Characters may have a trigger that could set off an episode. Why would any particular subject be a trigger for that character, and how would they react to it? Is it out of fear, anger, panic? Think of how they will behave afterwards as they might be recovering from the episode.

Understandably, a writer experiencing any mental condition themselves would know best how a character will function with said mental condition. The character’s portrayal of it may be unexpected or not completely make sense, but that is a part of mental illness. An unhealthy mind will result in unexpected, nonsensical, or delinear thought processes and behavior. This is a huge basis for the stigma behind mental illness, and often a root for many misconceptions such as those suffering from mental illnesses as being “crazy”, or people fearing mental illness. Another root would be a poor portrayal of it – combining a misunderstanding of mental illness with a writer who spreads the misconceptions themselves, we are given a portrayal of mental illness that is completely inaccurate. So, when writing, try to consult someone who may have experience dealing with the condition you’re interested in (gently and respectfully, of course!). If anything, place yourself in your character’s shoes and try to think the way they do. It may offer you a new brand of insight and help you develop a more believable character, not to mention a pinch of understanding of what it might be like to live with mental illness.

Wrapping things up, I would like to include a personal suggestion not to just pluck a popular condition and stick it on a character in order to excuse their behavior. Yes, this was mentioned before, but allow me to emphasize it. Don’t give your murderous character schizophrenia. Don’t give your criminal kleptomania. Don’t give your token sad character depression. Characters – and people – are not defined by their mental illness. It is a part of them, and they shape their presentation of it as much as it shapes them.

Come by next week for a review of Writing and Story-Building Software and How to Use It.

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